Once again, Christians online are debating about yoga pants. The dreaded, form fitting, athletic wear continue to be a scissor issue between conservative and progressive Christians. What has struck me about the debate is how similar it is to other aspects of Christian sexual teaching. The discussion is entirely centered on male sexuality. Male desire, male urges, and male experience are central while women’s sexuality is reduced to how women ought to react to men. Some go so far as to deny that women experience profound sexual feelings at all.
I want to take a moment to dispel some myths that have come up repeatedly in these debates.
Women Can’t Understand Male Sexual Urges
When I was in high school, Catholic sex ed talks focused on one thing: how to resist pressure from your boyfriend to have sex. This wasn’t particularly helpful because pressure from my boyfriend wasn’t my primary struggle. My primary struggle was wanting to have sex with my boyfriend and knowing it would be wrong to do so. The unintended message here: your sexual urges are not normal. Meanwhile, my boyfriend received sex ed talks about how his sexual desires were normal, but that God wants you to wait. Oh, and also don’t pressure girls to have sex. The problem here is obvious.
From a young age, Christians are taught that sexual desire comes from men and a woman’s role is to control and abate it to the best of her ability. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For fear of revealing that I wasn’t normal – that I had intense sexual urges – I buried them completely. I didn’t want anyone to know how I felt. My boyfriend did not have the same expectation. So our dynamic ended up being more or less what our teachers said it would be. I pretended to not desire sex, or to desire it less. My commitment to this ruse, based primarily in shame, allowed me to put off his advances. And thus, the cycle continued.
Women Don’t Experience Visual Temptation
Much of the Christian understanding of human sexuality is based in “natural law,” the idea that there are intrinsic differences between men and women. These difference may be based in evolution, or they’re just how God intended things. This understanding doesn’t leave room for the vast differences in individual experience. Even if it is the case – which is up for debate – that men are generally more visually stimulated than women, this is not the case for everyone. There are low sex drive men and high sex drive women. Women absolutely can experience visual temptation on par with men. But women aren’t crying out for men to cover up at the beach. Why? Because, for better or worse, we have been taught from a young age how to sublimate our sexual desire. We have also been taught that what happens in a sexual situation is within our sole control.
Women Don’t Struggle with Pornography, Masturbation, Or Lust
When I was growing up, porn was largely considered a “guy problem.” I was fortunate to avoid early exposure – and thus addiction – to porn, perhaps in part because of the expectation that girls didn’t watch it. This is rapidly changing. An estimated one-third of women watch pornography more than once a week, despite the fact that porn is conceived, directed, and marketed to a male audience. In talks about modesty, male addiction to pornography is often cited as a reason why women should be more careful about covering themselves. After all, the brains of the men around them have been warped by porn. But the reality is that many women’s brains are also warped. But, despite the rising numbers, women still don’t believe it is normal to struggle with porn. Thus, they cannot expect others to change their behavior to aid with their porn addiction.
If Women Understood These Things, They Would Cover Up
Women are able to control their actions because they have been taught to do so from a young age. In fact, they have been taught that not doing so will have profound social, moral, and reputational consequences. They have not been taught that it is normal “make mistakes.” There is no room for sexual error for young women. The sense of shame that women feel about sexuality is not a good thing. However, the sense of responsibility – that their sex drive is theirs and theirs alone to control – is.
Rather than asking women to try to understand sexuality from a male perspective, perhaps men should understand sexuality from a female perspective. Men need to understand that women face harassment regardless of what they’re wearing, so the idea that covering up will change that is a hard sell. They also need to understand what it means to be solely responsible for sexual desire, both our own and that of the opposite sex.
Women Should Help Their Brothers In Christ
The number one argument for modesty is that women need to help their brothers in Christ who are struggling with lust, porn use, and a myriad of other sexual temptations. In and of itself, this argument isn’t problematic. We all do need to help each other be holier. However, this argument must go both ways. Diminishing women’s sexual desires, saying they are less intense than those of men, makes women feel lonely and ashamed. We’re asked to to carry the burden of our sexuality alone while also carrying the burden of male sexuality.
So, brothers in Christ, cut your sisters some slack. We’ve been taking care of you for a while now. We’d like a break – and a little help and empathy from your side too.